If Boarding House Fiction isn’t a genre yet, it should be. I have a thing for stories about young women from a bygone era, sharing the bathroom and dining room, and occasionally, a bedroom, in a big old house: the pantyhose hanging in the shower; the prettier girls—in their lipstick and fashionable dresses—sticking together; the stern landlady and her rules; the constraint of that phase of life. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is an excellent example of the form. Eilis Lacey, born and raised in Ireland, emigrates as a young woman to Brooklyn in the years after World War Two. Toibin’s prose is unadorned and clean, and I fell into Eilis’s story as I might have been swept away by an L.M. Montgomery novel in elementary school. What sets this book apart from those of my youth is its dark and unexpected ending. It all hinges on a choice, one that will change Eilis’s life for good. It’s an absorbing, moving read.
This summer I embarked on an E.M. Forster kick. I’ve never plowed through an author’s oeuvre like that (and truth be told, I didn’t get all the way through because I felt the tug of so many contemporary novels…), but I found the practice to be illuminating, exhausting and exhilarating. My favorite of the Forster novels I did read was Howards End. I forgive Forster’s cartoonish characterization of poor Leonard Bast because sisters Margaret and Helen were so complex and alive on the page: their differences, and that which unites them. I love the pigs’ teeth lodged into the tree trunk at Howards End, and the descriptions of this home and other living spaces: their objects, their power. And it’s impossible not to love a book that begins a chapter like this: “Evie heard of her father’s engagement when she was in for a tennis tournament, and her play went simply to pot.” I hope someday that my narrators have half the authority and grace of Forster’s.
I’m a little afraid to mention Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad yet again, for fear of being accused of having read only one book this year. But I must. I loved it. It’s an unclassifiable, risky book that delves deeply into the lives of its characters. It’s also crazy fun to read. If you haven’t read it yet, well, I feel sorry for you and your bookish soul, starved as it must be. A Visit from the Goon Squad confirms Jennifer Egan’s brilliance; she is one of the best American fiction writers working today.
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